Fran O'Sullivan: Brain fade great tool for those tight spots

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Memory loss can be handy for politicians but doesn't always work

David Shearer claims he forgot about his New York bank account. Photo / APN
David Shearer claims he forgot about his New York bank account. Photo / APN

Some brain fades do not pass the smell test. Never will. The way the Act leader ponied up to Kim Dotcom for anonymous political donations does not pass the smell test. Brain fades. Don't you just love them?

I was accosted by one such afflicted male at the NZ Initiative's soiree for John Howard on Thursday. "I gave you a ride home 20 years ago ... you had a quaint Auckland cottage," he said. I didn't have to plumb the annals of amnesia. (I have never lived in a cottage in Auckland.) "Some other journalist?' I teased, slyly tossing in the name of a former female competitor who fitted the bill.

For New Zealand politicians brain fades are proving more serious than momentary social embarrassment. But they can be a useful political tool.

When I pursued a line of questioning with former Australian Liberal Prime Minister John Howard on whether Kevin Rudd would have the bottle to take out Julia Gillard (as it turned out, he didn't), Howard enjoyed himself, saying, "I think she is finished."

But when I contrasted Rudd's predicament with that of former Liberal Treasurer Peter Costello (who never mustered the courage to take out his boss) it was obvious Howard had reached the stage where it is politic to deploy a brain fade.

"He was a magnificent treasurer. Best treasurer Australia has ever had. We were a very good team. We worked together very closely for 12 years. Had the same Prime Minister, same Foreign Minister, same Treasurer for the entire time. The only time in Australian history where we had three people in those positions for such a lengthy time in Government."

In truth, Costello had lumped around Rotorua like a wounded elephant after Howard blew the centrepiece of one of his Budgets on the front-page of the Australian Financial Review while he was safely on this side of the Tasman, after the Treasurer's supporters tried to get their guy to man-up enough to have a crack at the leadership.

But that was then and this is now.

Labour's David Shearer tried (and failed) to fatally puncture John Key's credibility over the Prime Minister's failure to recall aspects of GCSB briefings on the Kim Dotcom saga. Shearer alleged Key hadn't told the truth. But he never managed to produce the smoking gun that would have made Key's grip on the helm untenable. A video Shearer claimed would have proved Key an outright liar never materialised, much to the Labour leader's chagrin.

Key has learned a lot from the Dotcom saga. He knows he can't rely on his memory to reliably recall all aspects of departmental briefings.

That's why he is demanding a higher level of staff work these days to ensure the official record leaves nothing to chance.

But his biggest lesson is not to trust officials' own analysis or memory when your political career depends on it. Key now demands officials check and recheck files, briefing notes and legal analysis before producing the final word on an issue for their boss to front in Parliament. There have been too many close calls.

I'm not particularly surprised Key is prone to brain fades.

Sleep specialist Alex Bartle said this week, "You need six hours' sleep to consolidate memory from that day and most people need another hour or two to wake up feeling refreshed."

One close Key observer from his foreign exchange trading days reckons that years of light sleep (the PM says he regularly clocks out of work at 1am and is up again at 6am) have taken a toll.

It is also true that politicians simply have many more interactions that most of us. More meetings, more glad-handing, more baby-kissing, more interviews, more report reading ... so it goes on.

But some brain fades do not pass the smell test. Never will.

The John Banks affair was egregious. The way the Act leader ponied up to Kim Dotcom for anonymous political donations does not pass the smell test.

Banks' attempt this week to nail Shearer for forgetting to include an overseas bank account in the list of pecuniary interests he is required to furnish to Parliament does not get him off the hook he fashioned for himself with Dotcom.

I also find it hard to believe that Shearer simply forgot his stash at New York City's Chase Manhattan Bank.

The amount was more than $50,000.

It may have been that his financial affairs were so structured that he did not believe he was required to let fellow MPs - and the public - know about the extent of his overseas wealth. And that he recently realised that in fact he was required to list the account.

For Shearer, there will be transitory embarrassment as the guessing game extends to toting up how much money he could have stashed away from his years as a former United Nations employee enjoying a tax-free status and gold-plated allowances.

But fundamentally, he is human - just like the rest of us.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

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